Something precious was stolen from blacks in the United States during slavery. It was a blessing from the hand of the Creator Himself: the right of a man and a woman to be joined in holy matrimony.
Under slavery, men and women were not permitted to have legally binding, permanent unions. Despite this, my ancestors longed to participate in the blessing of divinely sanctioned marriage. This yearning was demonstrated in their striving to be faithful to each other even under the harsh conditions of slavery. It was evident from the large numbers who were legally married as soon as possible, immediately after emancipation.
The gift from God that enslaved men and women sought was marriage. Marriage is a permanent bond between one man and one woman that provides the deepest levels of emotional and sexual fidelity and exclusivity. The resulting conjugal bond creates unity at every level of husband and wife: physical, emotional, volitional, and spiritual. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).
Despite the determined pursuit of marital unions by freed people, enduring patterns of non-normative male-female relationships had been created by the devastating experience of slavery. These bore bitter fruit in the 25-percent out-of-wedlock birthrate that prompted the Moynihan Report in 1965. The Moynihan Report was an examination of the pathologies created by the explosion of father-absent households among the black poor in the United States. Though the report recommended the creation of programs that would promote healthy families among impoverished blacks, it elicited an outpouring of outrage at the assertion that stable marriages were necessary for the flourishing of the black community. As a result, little action was taken to rectify these problems. Fifty years later, the out-of-wedlock birthrate among blacks in the United States has soared to over 70 percent, a level at which it has stood for roughly a decade. The material, moral, and spiritual consequences are precisely what Moynihan predicted they would be: devastating for the community.
Black children have suffered the most as a result of the decline of marriage in the black community. The deleterious effects of being raised in single-headed households have been well-documented. Children growing up in female-headed households experience higher rates of poverty. These children underperform in school: they earn lower scores on verbal and math achievement tests and lower grades in their courses. They have more behavioral problems, and higher rates of chronic health and psychiatric disorders. Adolescents and young adults raised without stable families experience elevated risks of teenage childbearing, dropping out of high school, being incarcerated, and being idle (being neither employed nor in school). Yet, even in the midst of this disarray, men and women still long for marriage. Research shows that though marriage has declined among poor women from different racial backgrounds, they, no less than affluent women, desire to be married even as they bear children out of wedlock.
Today, marriage faces new threats as the divinely established order of marriage between one man and one woman is challenged. Across the United States and Europe, sexual partnerships between persons of the same sex are being legally recognized as “marriages,” thus abolishing in law the principle of marriage as a conjugal union and reducing it to nothing other than sexual or romantic companionship or domestic partnership. The unavoidable message is a profoundly false and damaging one: that children do not need a mother and a father in a permanent complementary bond.
To insist on the truth that neither mothers nor fathers are expendable is not to dishonor anyone. Every human being is beloved and precious in God’s sight. The mere issue of an individual’s sexual inclinations cannot alter this. This is clearly so, since God loves all of us even though we each struggle with sin. Furthermore, as Christians and people of faith, we are commanded to love each of our neighbors as ourselves. Therefore, we embrace all people, though every one of us must wrestle against sin. However, though all people are equal in God’s sight, all sexual practices are not.
As with the reaction to the Moynihan Report, those who decry the erosion of marriage are reviled. Christians who stand against these developments risk losing their jobs and their businesses. Those who promote what they call marriage equality have unjustly appropriated the language and the mantle of the black struggle in the United States, the Civil Rights Movement. But there can be no equivalence between blacks’ experience of slavery and oppression and the circumstances of homosexuals. And as with the Moynihan Report, the terrible social consequences of these developments await us.
But God is not mocked. He is the almighty God, and He will advance His plan for conjugal flourishing. God has called us, the church, to a sacred duty to defend the innocents and the disadvantaged, the children and the poor, since He instructs us: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). We must relentlessly police ourselves, whether we are the Black Church or Roman Catholic, Muslim or Orthodox Jew, to ensure that no predators among us take advantage of these innocents. We must deal unsparingly with religious leaders who aid such predators. All of us must collaborate with the authorities to prosecute them to the full extent of the law. In addition, we must exemplify strong, stable marriages, founded on God’s principle of holy matrimony between one man and one woman. And we must promote the same among the faithful. As we are true to this calling, God will move.
In the Civil Rights Movement, God moved, calling the Black Church to brave fire hoses and attack dogs and to face down police brutality. God called a man, Martin Luther King Jr., to help end racial tyranny in the South. Brothers and sisters, God can and will do it again. He is calling us to a global movement to promote the correct definition of marriage.
There is some wisdom that I have learnt from my family that may be useful to us as we obey that calling. From my daughter’s passion for justice and her compassion for those who suffer, I urge us to use language and develop a model that will address some historical injustices that were previously ignored by the church. Traditional marriage, though in theory based on the complementarity of man and woman, often resulted in profoundly unfair treatment of women and even in a fundamental devaluation of our worth relative to men. This model also frequently led to extremely unjust treatment and marginalization of gays and lesbians. This includes discrimination in work settings, unfair property laws, and a lack of recognition of the longing of all people for deep emotional connections. We must send the message that we will not return to those bad old days.
From the trenchant insights of my son, I point out that many young people today seek license for their own unprincipled sexual culture. Their lives reflect an empty materialism, a lack of meaning and direction that verges on nihilism. In fact, many are deeply rooted in a self-centered indulgence of their appetites. We will not restore the centrality of the complementarity of man and woman without transforming that culture.
From the wisdom of my husband, I urge that we continue this movement. God our Father has brought us to this place, the Humanum Colloquium, to join in unity across faiths and around the world to defend the divine plan for marriage. Together, under God, we are stronger than those who would destroy the divine order for marriage. Together, under God, we vastly outnumber those who oppose God’s plan. Together, under God, we will see Him triumph, restoring a divinely inspired understanding of marriage.
Jacqueline C. Rivers is the Executive Director of the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies. She holds a PhD from Harvard University.